Making Sense of Gay History

Stephanie DonaldWith the recent death of Dr. Frank Kameny I was inundated with reading tributes to him and watching them all over television. I thought it was nice that everyone remembered him but I also thought it would have been nice if they got their facts right.

Rachel Maddow had Frank inventing The Mattachine. Sorry Rachel but Harry Hay did that in 1947 about 14 years before Frank took the name in Washington D.C.

All the publicity was almost as if they were granting Kameny sainthood and while he did do a courageous amount for the gay rights movement he didn’t do it alone and he absolutely didn’t have all those ideas by himself.

Clarification and shared credit is definitely needed here because someone is missing from the picture.

Allow me to clarify Frank Kameny’s personality. In the shortest possible terms he was focused, abrasive and not very personable. He never had been and never was at any part of his life.Dr. Frank Kameny

There was a Yin to Frank’s Yang and I have not read one tribute that made more than a meager mention of that Yin: Jack Nichols. Without Nichols there would have been no successes with the D.C. Mattachine, no picket at the White House in 1965 and most importantly there would have been no written doctrine to change the American Psychiatric Association’s determination that homosexuality was a mental disorder.

At the tender age of 18 Jack Nichols had compiled every paper, transcripts of speeches and remarks of psychiatrists and mental health professionals, clergy, judges, social workers and psychologists who disagreed with the stand of the American Psychiatric Association into a “compendium” and continued to add more as they appeared in the Library of Congress.

According to J. Louis Campbell’s book; Jack Nichols, Gay Pioneer: Have You Heard My Message? (Pg. 75 par. 2-3)

We had come to the conclusion that education programs, even if based on reputable research, would not be sufficient to erase irrational anti-gay biases. We would take another approach: reaching over the heads of prejudiced masses and first changing the viewpoints of their leading lights, including judges, clergy, journalists, academics, psychologists, psychiatrists, and politicians. We noted that most of the nation’s gay organizations were satisfied to pursue social service and educational goals, but we knew that one could minister to long lines of discriminated-against people without ever changing the super structures which had created such discrimination. Other homophile groups had not yet realized this….

Always a stickler for method, Kameny urged that Nichols write a letter to the executive board of the Washington, DC, Mattachine to present his case. Nichols would not have thought of a letter, on his own. He was not sufficiently structured at that point. “I was fairly new and…I didn’t think in those kinds of strategic terms about making a specific plea in a formal manner.” On October 14, 1963, Nichols submitted a formal letter to the DC Mattachine board in what is believed to be the first formal attempt to arouse an organization to confront the psychiatric theory of sickness.[1]

Lige Clarke-Barbara Gittings-Kay T. Lahusen-Jack NicholsThe Yang guides the Yin. Did Frank Kameny have a hand in this? He most definitely did but only in a very subtle way. He guided the young Jack Nichols, in his enthusiasm, to take research he had compiled all on his own and tells him to craft it into a useful tool but Frank didn’t craft it. Jack did that all on his own and in the process he made history.

In the hoopla of Frank’s death we can hardly hear even the whisper of Jack Nichols contributions anymore. I found only two mentions of Jack’s name out of more than 50 tributes to Dr. Frank Kameny in the parts that referred to the Washington D.C. Mattachine years and even then it only referred to Jack as the “co-founder” of the group.

In the years I knew Jack before his death in 2005 I talked with him about those Mattachine years. When the subject of the first White House picket came up he told me that Frank1965 White House Protest-Jack Nichols in front followed by Dr. Frank Kameny Kameny was definitely against it at the Mattachine meeting. Frank felt that the public might view a group of homosexuals in much the same way that they would the new wave of draft card burners and peace protestors over the Vietnam War. Kameny believed that the only outcome would be a backlash against homosexuality.

When Kameny was outvoted by the membership and executive board of the D.C. Mattachine he relented and agreed to allow his home to be used as a staging area for the protest on the White House. Years later that would work to Frank’s financial gain since all the signs and pamphlets that were used in the march were brought back to his house and abandoned in the basement along with many other boxes of records Kameny had stored meticulously so when the representatives of the Smithsonian knocked on his door in 2003 and asked if he had any relics of the Mattachine and Homophile years Frank dumped 175,000 documents on them along with protest signs, pamphlets, tee-shirts and buttons (which the tee-shirts and buttons were no doubt made by Randy Wicker). However, Frank didn’t just give these items to the Smithsonian as a Good Samaritan would; he sold them at price of $100,000 and no doubt used the money to pay the back taxes on his house which ran about $10,000 a year.

It’s not that I blame Frank Kameny. Our society breeds an opportunistic mindset that is hard for most people to avoid especially when they’ve lived in poverty for a good portion of their lives like Frank, Jack and so many of the original homophile leaders did and even I have. Hal Call may have used his nefarious pornography business to finance his efforts for gay rights. There is nothing bad about that. Hal realized that with more capital he could do much more and he in fact may be responsible for doing the most good from the West Coast Homophile movement of any single man but that’s a different story.

Jack Nichols 2001The real story is that no one can remember Dr. Franklin Kameny and dare to forget Jack Nichols. That’s a travesty that parallels the classic tragic plays of the Greek’s.

Whether Frank intended to take credit or not is now a moot point. It’s up to those of us who knew them both and the scholars who know what actually happened to preserve history as it actually happened.

I will not forget Jack and I will not allow others to forget either because he was not only my friend but he was a great man whose own great accomplishments would only be forgotten because in life Jack Nichols was too modest to step up to the dais and claim the credit he so richly deserved.

Stephanie Donald



©LGBT-Today Except for marked excerpts.


[1] ©2007 by J. Louis Campbell-Used by written permission of author. 

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